Natural Building Internship at Keela Yoga Farm
I’ve been back at Keela Yoga Farm since the end of July, just wrapping up a six week natural building internship a couple of weeks ago. I was was here for seven weeks this time last year and I had so much fun that I decided to come back. They’ve been up and running for a couple of years and it’s an awesome place full of building and gardening projects and they bring in volunteers to help out. I actually didn’t know there was an organised internship type thing happening until my friend mentioned seeing it on the website. Since it was my intention to cram in as much building experience as possible into my time at Keela, I was happy to hear that it would be a set period of six weeks of building fun!
The idea is a really good one. Basically Laurence and Kimberly who own Keela have set aside blocks of time where certain main tasks need to be done. They’ve been working on a community building and running some natural building courses over the summer and the idea is to attract volunteers interested in this sort of thing. A new block of volunteers just arrived a few days ago (yes, I’m still here) who will be more focused on supporting a food forest course that starts October first, so in theory, they should be more interested in trees and plants and all of that fun stuff. Clearly defining what each six weeks will be focused on in a great way of finding volunteers who will be interested in the work and gaining experience in an area that’s interesting to them without any surprises.
Our group had four people in total who stayed for the entire six weeks for the natural building internship including myself and my friend Sinead who are pretty much exclusively interested in building at the moment. As an added bonus, because I’ve been to Keela previously and proven that I can build some things that won’t fall down, Laurence gave Sinead and I a couple of jobs and just let us go for it. We built a compost toilet box as our first masterpiece and then we managed to use our mad timber framing skillz to put up a roundwood frame for their future pantry.
Both of these small projects were hilarious. I’ve done a decent amount of hack job carpentry work here and there but I’m not super confident with all of the tools. I love a good chiseling job but, alas, not everything can be done with chisels. Luckily, Sinead is a lot more capable and experienced with power tools and woodworking in general and I’ve been learning loads from her. The funny moments came when we did the planning parts of the work. We’d talk everything through about ten times before making any decisions and then talk it over yet again before making a cut. We dreamed up ridiculous jigs, used a few unnecessary mathematical equations, and generally faffed around on each part of the build until we eventually got it done. Then we’d high five each other and marvel at what we’d made. Possibly not the most efficient way to work, but it works for us and we eventually get things done with a lot of laughter along the way.
The pantry frame had to be done in time for Barbara’s natural building course and we managed to get it upright just before the course kicked off. Sinead joined the eight day course and the rest of us were there as support for Barbara and the students. I slotted into a similar role as last year when I helped with their straw bale house as the person lingering around in case anyone needed anything. It meant that I was hauling clay around from the pile to the mixer, making and delivering mixes, topping up the drinking water, helping course members learn how to make mixes, bringing and putting away tools as they were needed, and generally being the job site’s labourer. In between I spent a lot of time stuffing and trimming straw bales and trying to pack straw so that it fit into the angle of the roof.
The course people got a lot of work done on the building itself including stacking bales for the walls, making a cool earthbag bench, finishing off the cordwood kitchen counter, and putting several layers of clay onto the walls. Once they all headed off, it was time for the volunteers to kick back into action and we basically went on a natural building and plastering bender for the next couple of weeks. The idea was to finish as much of the building as possible before the internship ended because Laurence has other tasks lined up for the next group of volunteers, but also to prepare as many walls on the building for a weekend plastering course that would also be run by Barbara.
So the race was on to get all of the straw bales in place and then to get some mud on so that it would dry in time for the plastering students to get a chance to put on each of the different layers. The tricky part with finishing the straw bales was that we had to deal with the roof which meant having to come up with some idea to get straw into the weirdly shaped places. This is probably extremely uninteresting to most people, but for Sinead and I it was a glorious challenge that involved chainsawing straw bales into triangles for the pointy part of the roof and untying and retying super tiny bales to fit into another annoying part of the roof. Without going into too much detail because that would be weird and boring, we figured it out and we finished the job off with a dorky high five. We (I) also managed to forget to attach wooden bracing to one of the walls and it nearly fell on our heads when we added mud to it… but lets forget about that little indiscretion, shall we?
Once the bales were all in place it was time to continue on with the plastering which takes forever. Fortunately, playing with mud is super fun and I find the process more meditative and therapeutic than frustrating. The first layer is a soupy mix of clay and water that gets splattered on with a brush to make the straw bales a bit more grippy. The next layer is thicker with straw mixed in (cob) and it’s mashed onto the bales with your hands. The next layer is where the walls start to take shape with the plasterer throwing sticky balls of clay onto the wall and then going over it all with a trowel to make it smooth. The final layer of clay is more of the same but with an even smoother finish. Then lime render is applied and it all starts to look like ‘real’ walls.
The whole process takes an absolute shiteload of clay mix and involves one person on the electric mixer and another running loads of cob into the plasterers with the wheelbarrow. It’s a lot of hard, messy, sweaty work but strangely satisfying. I really love just being given a task for the day and getting to it, whether it be plastering cob onto the walls, running the mixer, or moving clay and cob around by wheelbarrow. The work is super intuitive and I seem to shut my brain off and go into some weird meditation mode without really thinking too much about anything, which is strangely satisfying.
Not everyone loves the ol’ job of plastering but luckily Laurence has a lot of experience and Sinead is a natural and they led the charge. I’m ok admitting that my plastering skills are not awesome but I know I get a little better each time I give it a try. But plastering is a trade and it’s not realistic to think I’d be good at it from the start, or even with a couple of weeks of solid practice. But slowly slowly I’m getting better and that feels good. That’s the thing with natural building… it’s empowering. You can start off totally new to it and with a bit of practice it doesn’t take too long to get to a reasonable skill level. True, my areas of the wall have trowel marks in them and aren’t massively sexy, but the mud stays up and the end product looks like a wall, so that’s a win to me!
I feel like I learned so many things over the course of the six weeks… too much to actually remember! Every day seemed to have some lesson in it. I probably should have written them down but I feel somewhat confident that the lessons are there in my brain somewhere and that they’ll pop out at the perfect moments when I’m working on my own house. This short six weeks has done wonders for my confidence in my ability to somehow build some sort of a structure whenever I get my piece of land. Starting from the foundation is something I was able to do last year on their house here at Keela, and this current experience has been more about the middle process of getting the bales up and putting layers of clay on. Eventually I’ll want to do work on the finishing stages of some sort of a structure including the lime finish, electrics, etc. Maybe next year!
On top of everything that I’m learning, Keela is just a great place to stay. It’s a beautiful place and they’re still in the early days of setting everything up which is exciting. If you volunteer for a month it costs €200 which is mainly a contribution towards food. It’s not a pure work exchange like you can find on Workaway and Help Exchange, but in this case I’m happy to contribute because I’m learning so damned much every day. For the stage I’m at with my knowledge of natural building, Keela is a perfect place to be. I know enough to be useful (I hope), but there are new challenges each day and I’m constantly learning which makes being here more than worth it.
One of the best parts of this whole experience has been the people. I love it here at Keela for a lot of reasons but one of the most important is that I get along really well with Kimberly and Laurence. It’s been awesome to see them again, work with them, hang out, drink (too much?) wine, and to help them push their project forward. Plus the other volunteers for the entire time I’ve been here have been really great. The group seemed to gel very easily and I enjoyed working with and getting to know everyone that’s been here. Then the best part of all has been getting to work with and hang out with Sinead, one of my favourite people in the world who I don’t get to see nearly enough. Being able to spend a bunch of time together doing something we both love has been an amazing experience so far… and we sill have six weeks to go which is awesome.
New Things I Did
- Sinead and I were able to put some of our roundwood timber framing skills to use when we built the pantry. It was nice to attempt to figure out how to work with roundwood without having any sort of a framing bed or something to work on. By ‘nice’, I mean ‘ridiculous’. It was fun to attempt to figure things out for ourselves and to be creative and eventually we ended up getting it done.
- I got to use a chainsaw again but this time an electric one. We used it in an attempt to shape straw bales to fit into weird and wonderful parts of the wall near to the roof. It was weird to chainsaw the soft straw but extremely satisfying too.
- I’ve also been able to have a crack at using a few other power tools that I’ve probably used before here and there, but have forgotten. Though I’m partial to hand tools, I’ve learned that chicken wire is the devil and it’s much better to attack it with an angle grinder than with wire cutters. I’ve also learned that I’m pretty shitty and using a power screwdriver thing but I’ve enjoyed getting more practice. I’ve also decided that chop saws are quite glorious. Basically, I might need to get over my aversion to power tools because they’re ridiculously handy and it’s been nice to gain more confidence in using them.
- Despite being on two natural building courses, it was Barbara’s plastering weekend where I was able to use lime for the first time. It’s a pretty amazing and versatile material and fun to use, if a little intimidating at first.
Things I Want to Copy
- I really love the idea of having an internship type thing where a few interested people come for a set amount of time to work on something specific. I’m not keen on having volunteers rolling through my future place on a regular basis, but I do like the idea of being organised enough to have specific, interesting tasks that are well suited for a small group to help with while learning.
- Laurence seems to have some level of faith in our abilities to get jobs done and Sinead and I have been given a few tasks and just left to it to figure things out for ourselves. It’s a really fun way to work when there’s nobody around telling you exactly what to do and there’s freedom to experiment a bit. I think it’s the best way to learn and it’s been one of the best parts about being here.
- It was awesome to get to hang out and work alongside Barbara from Mount of Oaks again when I helped support the natural building course. I’m always gleaning new ideas from her and it’s great to have to her around to ask questions.
- We had some pretty epic nights drinking wine and hanging out. One of the best nights was a pizza party at the end of the natural building course that culminated in a bit of a jam session involving a fantastically creative instrument made from tin cups and rocks, freestyle rapping, amazing drumming, singing, and a generally awesome vibe. There were a lot of fun nights, as always.
- It was a nice bonus of the internship to be able to attend Barbara’s weekend plastering workshop for free. I’d done a bit of clay plastering previous to the workshop but I feel like I learned a lot and was happy for the opportunity.
- The other volunteers have been really great since the first day we all arrived. Some people have stayed for the entire six weeks and others were around for shorter periods of time but everyone has been fantastic. It’s fun to get to know people in a place where you’re able to work alongside them and share new experiences.
- I think Sinead and I make a good team and it’s been glorious to be able to spend each day working with and learning from her.
- Some of us here who shall remain nameless tend to be partial to a work hard/play hard mentality and the wine tends to flow freely a few times each week. The company is excellent, the craic is mighty, and here have been more than a few late nights, a couple of hangovers, and some tired mornings. But somehow we’ve all managed to persevere and laugh our way through the rough mornings after and, most important of all, we never seem to learn our lesson.
This six weeks of natural building at Keela Yoga Farm was extremely useful and fun for me. I feel like I learned a lot, not only by getting to work alongside Barbara again for her natural building course and plastering weekend, but also because we were given the freedom to work things out for ourselves. Laurence has a good amount of natural building experience, but he’s learning as well and it was nice to be able to puzzle through some problems or even to be trusted to just get things done on our own. I’m a big fan of learning by doing and this experience offered that environment every single day over a variety of interesting tasks.
All up it’s been great and I’m looking forward to hanging out here until the end of October so that Sinead and I can design and build a composting toilet. Because these are the things I find fun!